Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

A few years ago Elizabeth Scalia at her website The Anchoress posted her thoughts about a biography of St Catherine of Sienna by Sigrid Undset.  It was a glowing review and so I filed away Ms. Undset's name as someone I might want to read in the future.  Now, thanks to the 2019 Classics Challenge - choose a classic in translation, that day has arrived.  But instead of Sigrid Undset's biography of Catherine of Sienna,  I decided to go with another book, The Wreath published 1920. It's the first book in Ms. Undset's highly acclaimed Kristin Lavransdatter series (The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross).  Three historical novels set in fourteenth century Norway which revolve around the life of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The Wreath, begins with Kristin Lavransdatter at about age six and ends with her marriage at age seventeen.  She is a very well drawn character and Sigrid Undset does a wonderful job depicting her thoughts, her conflicts, her dreams.  Other interesting characters appear in The Wreath as well: Kristin's parents Lavrans and Ranifrid Bjorgulfson, Kristin's betrothed, Simon Andresson and Erlund Nikulausson the man she really loves.  I was concerned that I might have trouble keeping straight the different Norwegian names of the chatacters but after a few pages it was fine and I got drawn in to Kristin's world.  Kristin age six for example accompanying her father on a journey, the furthest she has been from home:

"Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived ...she knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were but there were certainly many more of them than Christian people.  Then she called loud to her father, but he didn't hear her because of the wind".

Later in The Wreath when her younger sister Ulvhild is seriously injured, Kristin contemplates becoming a nun and that if she enters the convent God will perform a miracle and make Ulvhild well:

"But Kristin didn't want to do it; she resisted the idea that God would perform a miracle for Ulvhild if she became a nun.  She clung to Sira Eirik's words that so few miracles occured nowadays.  And yet she had the feeling this evening that it was as Brother Edvin had said -- that if someone had enough faith that he could indeed work miracles.  But she did not want that kind of faith; she did not love God and His Mother and the saints in that way.  She loved the world and longed for the world.

It is this struggle that Kristin Lavransdatter wrestles with in The Wreath whether to do what God and her parents want and marry Simon or follow her heart and marry Erlund and as the series progresses Kristin Lavrandatter will no doubt be presented with other challenges.

In 1928 Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and the comittee singled out The Kristin Lavransdatter novels.  It's an exceptional series  and not just because of the amount of research Ms. Undset did in accurately portraying fourteenth century Norwegian life but the characters have an authenticity about them as well.  I really did feel that this is how people must have thought and behaved back in Medieval times.  The Kristin Lavransdatter novels have been greeted with renewed interest in recent years thanks to the very fine translation by Tina Nunnally which makes these books accessible while maintaining the beauty and other worldliness of the prose.  This is a series I see myself completing.